Can We Teach Ourselves (and Our Kids) to Be Happier?

By , Michelle Stroffolino Schmidt, Ph.D.
Every morning, I start my day with a hot chai.  In the summer, it is a particularly special treat.  Instead of my usual vanilla chai, it is transformed into a half-coconut, half-vanilla chai.  I realize it has too many calories and I should opt for sugar-free syrup (at least it is nonfat), but I consider it my one indulgence.  My one addiction. 

My morning pleasure. 

It makes me happy. 

Happiness.  Most of us want it.  Many of us have it. The drive-thru window where I get my chai provides an interesting backdrop for a small study of the differences in people's levels of happiness. 

There is one girl who is simply bubbling over with happiness each and every time I see her.  It is genuine.  She actually makes you happy.  I would love to meet her parents. 

Then there is another person whom you dread hearing on the speaker and seeing at the window.  Nothing about him even whispers, "Hey, I'm a mostly happy guy."  

With which person do you most identify?

There are two ways that we can think about happiness.  We can consider things that come and go, but bring happiness to us when we experience them (for many, these include shopping, eating, and drinking).  We can also consider something that I think of as our "way of being."  We can have episodes of happiness or we can just simply be happy. 

In studies of happiness and satisfaction, Americans are overall fairly happy people (although people in countries like Switzerland, Canada, and the Netherlands are happier).  When asked what parents want for their children, they most often include happiness in their responses.  How much of that is in your control?  To what extent do you provide those shorter-lived episodes of happiness (giving in to buying a toy that is inevitably fun for the first day or two and then completely uninteresting the next) versus promote an environment that has in it those things that may provide longer-lived, "way-of-life" happiness?

Not much more than a century ago, people did not think about happiness; they thought primarily about survival.  Life expectancies were shorter, infant mortality was high, medical technologies did not exist.  Now, we think about happiness.  Some of us do it regularly, even on a daily basis.  I do.  Right now, I'm thinking that I am happy I'm writing this blog sitting in my bed rather than in my office.  Now I'm thinking that the flexibility of being a college professor makes me happy… 

In any event, we all want to feel happy.  We want to live as long as long as we can.  We have medicine and technologies that reduce or eliminate our physical and mental ailments, and some are even designed to make us feel happier.  We not only want to live longer, we want to look younger and feel younger.  We think that will make us happier.  And it just might…for a time.  Until, we need another "fix" to be happy again.  Many believe that money will bring them more happiness.  That is largely untrue.  Only for the poorest does money increase happiness.  Once people's needs are met, more money does not magically make people happier.  In fact, winning the lottery does not even make people happier shortly after their big win (some even report being less happy). 

Psychology was traditionally interested in studying mental illness and things that would be considered "unhappy."  However, more recently, there is more and more interest in happiness.  After all, maybe if we understand happiness better, we can be happier... 

So, what brings us happiness?  There is evidence that some people have brain chemistry that makes them happier to begin with (so we might each have a different set point or "range" of potential happiness).  It is also believed that being more optimistic is associated with being happier.  I have read a lot about the connection between happiness and optimism, but still, I find I prepare for the worst and feel relieved when it doesn't happen—I suppose I am a hopeless pessimist who is destined to be only moderately happy!  Those who are more spiritual tend to be happier.  That doesn't have to mean formally practicing a religion; it involves believing in something bigger than yourself (personally, I do better on this one). 

Having more control makes people happier (even babies who can choose to control the movement of a mobile over their cribs quickly learn to do so and cry when the control is taken away).  Married people and those with larger social support networks are happier, too.  (Also, the Weekly Spark today reminded me that chocolate may go a long way as well!)

The next time you think about saying yes to that toy at the store just to find momentary peace and a little happiness, think instead about promoting positive emotions in your children, building on your children's strengths, letting your children fail (so they learn the value of succeeding), and helping them to build independence and courage and kindness.  When I spend a week on mental health in my adulthood and aging class, I always begin with the question, "if you could choose to never experience sadness again, would you want to?"  Although I sometimes feel a pang of "yes, yes, me, I would choose it," my students inevitably say they would not choose it.  If you cannot experience sadness (or failure or disappointment), then you cannot fully appreciate happiness.  I have a magnet on the back of my car with an owl that says, "Let it Be."  I use that as a reminder that I need to find more contentment and fight off those things that make me unhappy.

What is authentic happiness and how else can you be happier and help raise happier children?  I suggest reading Martin Seligman's Authentic Happiness to learn more.  Not in the mood to read?  At least take Seligman's happiness survey.  See what you find out about yourself. 

Not in the mood for Q&A?  Then simply reflect on what matters in your life.  Take stock.  What about you can you build on to increase your happiness?  And then, let it be contagious with your kids and those you see at a drive-thru window!

How happy are you? Which type of happiness is more important to you? Would you rather have be generally happy or have things and experiences that bring happiness to your life?

Michelle Stroffolino Schmidt
is Chairperson of the Department of Psychology at Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.  Her research focuses on social and emotional development in childhood and adolescence.  She has published research on parent-child attachment, friendship, peer relations, bullying, and mentoring.  She has also done consulting work with schools as part of their bullying prevention and intervention programs.  Michelle recently published the book Friendships in Childhood and Adolescence (Guilford Press), which explores the significance of friendship from toddlerhood through adolescence.  The book examines factors that contribute to positive friendships, how positive friendships influence children’s lives, and interventions for those who have friendship difficulties.  Michelle is the mother of a 7-year-old son, William, and a 2-year-old bulldog named Eve.  She enjoys yoga, kayaking, writing, and cooking.

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Be happy be healthy Report
I did the happiness questionnaire - well- I am a happy person, ha, ha!!!! Report
Love reading this. Great reminder to focus on all I have and all that is right in my life! Report
Thanks for this. I do think you can teach yourself to be more happy - it is "just" a different point of view and handling of the things that happen / that you do in your life. Now the hard part is to learn a "positive point of standing" on most things. I sure don't have that - but my therapist helped me with a few things that help me to get out of my depressions... well sometimes - difficult. But yeah, again: It is something one can learn. Report
At my age, I'm happy every single day as I so realize this is the only life I'll ever live. Report
I loved this blog. Report
I have stage IV breast cancer, and living with that has made me redefine what happiness is to me. Too me, being happy now is being content with what I have, and being thankful for the little things in life too. Report
Knowing I'm right where God wants me to be makes me happy ~ I just need to remind myself of that fact more often.

Becca Report
Awesome video! I especially loved the end, "I don't know what this is but I'm doing it". I heart Meghan! Report
As others have commented, happiness is a choice. I can choose to be merry or miserable. If you look for blessings, you will find them. Love the song, "Don't worry, be happy!" Too, my faith in God, and my faith in God's loving mercy, truly sustains me. I rejoice in the dawn of each new day. My blessings are abundant, and my faith helps me to accept the trials and tribulations that sometime happen.
Thank you for this thought provoking blog----I appreciate Sparkpeople! Report
I have to thank my sister for sharing this article - it is very good and I am glad I took the time from my busy day to read it. Thank you. Report
Love your blog. It was interesting and informative. Thanks! Report
Happiness is a decision. I choose to be happy (content, optimistic, whatever anyone wants to call it). There are days when it is easier than others - when it is sunny and my car is not in the shop - but even then I know it is a choice and I try to choose well. Report
To be in the moment and appreciating it, that is happy.

I come from the country rated as the happiest in the world - Denmark. This is a country that takes care of everyone and where most people ride a bike daily.

What I don't get (especially if she is indeed a so-called 'expert') is how a sugar laden nutrition-less sweet drink is what makes the author of the article 'happy'. That is sad. Report
I'm just a happy person I find joy in the every day things in life, a beautiful sunrise, sunset, watching the birds, watching my veggie garden grow . I just enjoy the moment what ever it might be. Report
Good to read all of the positive comments! I have always had a positive outlook on life. Even when I was young and things at home were not good. It is the little things that I strive to appreciate...a thunderstorm, a friend, a smile, a good meal, the library, etc. that keeps me balanced. The bigger things, my good health, great marriage, etc are the extras that I am so grateful for... Report
This article made me recall the joy of reading "Simple Abundance". That book is truly profound. I do agree that being grateful is the key to happiness. Report
I am realizing that the older I get, the more I am able to take things in stride. This has definitely had a positive effect on my happiness level. Report
I have no interest in living a long life!

I also don't consider happiness a goal for myself or my child. I prefer being content with my life, whatever circumstances bring.

I will be "happy" if I accomplish my purpose for being here on earth, whatever that purpose turns out to be. Report
"If you cannot experience sadness (or failure or disappointment), then you cannot fully appreciate happiness. "

Why? No justification was offered for this claim in the article. Just basing it on your intuition is not sufficient, as it is easy enough to find someone whose intuition runs counter. It's not as though we would say one could appreciate "red" only if one had experienced "blue", or that one can appreciate art only if one had experienced... non-art? You can't make a normative claim about the supposed dualistic nature of appreciation of emotions (or anything else) without something to back it up. Report
Thanks for this article Michelle. I am sorry that you are a hopeless pessimist who is destined to only be moderately happy. I consider myself an eternal optimist....Don't know why, but I am happy that I am. I am a very spiritual person that believes that God always hears my prayers - no matter how busy he is with much larger problems, and dark chocolate is my go to after dinner..Yum! Report
I had kids day @ work! Report
I really liked this article and I hope SparkPeople offers more like it. I took the test provided in your link and I rated a 4 out of 5 on the happiness scale. I'm definitely a happy person because I choose to be happy. Outside circumstances don't change that. Happiness radiates from me because of who I am. Report
I'm definitely high on the naturally happy range. Even when things drag my mood down - angry, sad - I tend to bounce right back up to content and happy. My "way of being" is content to be alive another day. I don't depend on things or events to be happy, but most certainly I can be happier in the moment doing something I love.

I did have to wonder about the "optimistic people are happier" study. Is it possibly like the whole chicken vs egg cause-effect discussion. Could an unhappy person BE optimistic - or does it take being happy to be able to be optimistic? Report
interesting article..thanks Report
Generally happy for sure, thank you for sharing this is an Awesome article. Report
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